Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Determined to be Free

Freedom Evolves

By: Jonathan D. Moreno, Ph.D.


While I was a graduate student in philosophy, I enrolled in a seminar called “Free Will and Determinism.” I was not particularly interested in metaphysics, but it was advisable for all graduate students to take a smattering of courses in various fields to help prepare for comprehensive exams. The so-called problem of free will and determinism has been one on which many of the great philosophers have cut their teeth. Getting some clarity on the issue would be a challenging and sharpening exercise. Besides, this seminar was offered by a young professor (I’ll call him Gold-stock) who was regarded as a rising star and who had recently completed a dissertation on the seminar topic.

The first two meetings were lively and engaging. Goldstock was clearly a dedicated teacher and a careful, well-trained philosopher. He was, in addition, a kind man who made some flattering comments about my ability based on my first paper. Then, without notice, Goldstock failed to appear for the third session. I recall that the next week the Ph.D. program administrator told us that Goldstock was ill and the class was again canceled. The following week he reappeared and began the session with an apology for his absences. Someone offered a polite remark to the effect that we all hoped he felt better. Goldstock made a half-smile and said quietly, “My wife always says when I do something I don’t mess around.”

That class was the last time I saw him. A few weeks later it was announced that he would not return to work due to a serious illness, and shortly thereafter he died of cancer.

Like most reasonably healthy people in their early twenties, I was not given to morbid preoccupations, but it did occur to me that the circumstances of Goldstock’s untimely death had a certain irony when juxtaposed with the intellectual problem that dominated his brief professional life. Was Goldstock fated to die a young man of unfulfilled promise? If not fated, then were the cellular conditions for his premature demise in place even in his adolescence or perhaps his childhood? Was a genetic alteration at fault, one that could not have been defeated by medical science even if it had been detected? Perhaps the stage had been set by the genes of his parents, or by their distant ancestors. How far back did the chain of causes reach? Was it determined that Goldstock would die? Was it inevitable? Was it only one among countless searing lessons that free will is at best a happy delusion?

Over the years I have occasionally thought of Goldstock, and, as I age, I feel a greater sadness about his story of promise unfulfilled. The problem of free will and determinism has not been prominent in my work, although from the reading for the Goldstock seminar (which I completed with another instructor) I gained some understanding of it. The philosophical consensus is that neither hard determinism (roughly, the view that we can do nothing to change the course of events) nor radical free will (the view that we can choose without any prior conditions or constraints) is intellectually coherent. Rather, there has been broad agreement that determinism and free will are compatible—that, as it is often expressed, we can deliberately or accidentally “enter into the chain of causes.”


There are at least two apparent problems with this “compatibilist” solution. First, how exactly is it that we can “enter into the chain of causes” without that entry itself being determined? Second, the entry having been determined, is not that event then inevitable? Philosopher and scholar of the mind Daniel Dennett is the author of the well-received Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and Brainstorms, among other volumes of scientifically informed philosophy.  His new book, Freedom Evolves, begins with the second question of inevitability and leads to the first, determinism. Some 30 years after reading my last article on the subject, I am struck by the change in approach that the decades have brought. As one of our most prominent and ingenious philosophers, who has long been devoted to the idea that philosophy can learn from the sciences, Dennett is able to deploy materials from a wide range of fields. While the Goldstock syllabus of the early 1970s was dominated by language analysis and metaphysics, without reference to science (apart, occasionally, from physics), Dennett applies cognitive science, logic, genetics, and even the methods of social psychology to the issue of free will. In short, a new brand of philosophical thinking has matured and is expertly managed in Dennett’s hands.

That having been said, readers without a background in logic will find some of Freedom Evolves rough going. That is fair enough; no author should be required to make genuinely knotty problems artificially easy. But Dennett also engages in lengthy musings that some will find puzzling or even self-indulgent—although, in somewhat meandering fashion, these apparent tangents do converge toward his conclusion. Early on, when Dennett takes up some long-running disagreements with other authors, I felt as I do when entering a room where an involved and tense conversation has been taking place. Nonetheless, the persistent reader will be rewarded with an erudite and often charming tour through regions that vastly enrich the more familiar terrain. That tour’s ultimate destination, a form of compatibilism, is not what sets Dennett’s treatment apart; it is the scenery along the way.

How would you know that everything in a real or a conceptual universe was completely determined? The paradigmatic model of the determinist argument was provided by the French mathematician and astronomer Marquis de Laplace in 1814. From what he called a “demon’s-eye view,” an omniscient intellect could know the location of every item in the universe, down to the least particle, as well as its trajectory, mass, and velocity. Applying the laws of physics, every subsequent state of the universe could be known with utter precision. This state of affairs would define a deterministic universe. Dennett elaborates and refines this concept by exploring various thought experiments involving universes with a small number of entities and well-defined laws (called transition rules) about how such universes can change from one state to another.

These abstract, invented universes demonstrate that, in simpler worlds, each of us could be a Laplacean demon and see how the fate of everything in that world was determined. Say, however, that there appears in such a highly simplified world what Dennett calls an “avoider,” perhaps a particle that does not follow the laws that heretofore governed that world. It seems arbitrary to declare at the outset that such entities are not possible. Perhaps they would be placed there by the hacker gods. But are we then to say that different rules apply to them, rules that make their behavior equally predictable? Further, what is to prevent new hacker gods and new avoiders from appearing?


In biological theory, Darwinian evolution plays the role of a hacker god, introducing avoiders into the picture. The puzzle is that, unlike the intelligent hacker gods, evolution proceeds without intelligent planning and yet produces intellect in the form of the most remarkable avoiders we know of: human beings.

Dennett hammers particularly hard at fatalism, the idea that in a deterministic universe whatever happens is inevitable. I suppose that this equation of inevitability with determinism is the core intuition of those who find any form of determinism objectionable. But, as Dennett points out, if by inevitable is meant unavoidable, then determinism does not in fact imply inevitability. For example, the avoiders were caused to come into being—evolution determined that after millennia we arise out of the muck —but it was not inevitable that we show up. Anything that is logically possible (not self-contradictory) can happen, and so far as we can tell everything that happens has at least one cause, though some events have more than one.

Dennett spends a great deal of time on the questions raised by the existence of humans, creatures who can write their own rules. He considers and rejects the plausible claim that we escape determinism because we are indeterministic decision makers, with randomness in our own internal universe— perhaps, for example, because our brains benefit from indeterminacy, which physics has shown to exist on the quantum level of matter. But there is a difficulty in explaining just how we can be insulated decision makers, kept apart from any external influences. How to put a wall around the brain so that it can act entirely on its own, yet still be able to interact with the world outside?

Indeterminism also has trouble with evolutionary activity, which does not look entirely externalizable. There is a marvelous section in which Dennett uses a game scenario called the prisoner’s dilemma to establish that the way players in the game attempt to obtain an advantage over others is analogous to the way evolutionary competitors who defect from a partnership (on the suspicion that the other party might also have defection in mind) do better than cooperators. One of his examples is the giant redwoods. They did not have to exceed the height at which most trees share sunlight, but they shot up to tower above the tree next door in a bid for a bigger share. Yet, true to our nature as avoiders of the determined, or inevitable, we can alter even our genetic endowment that emerged from evolutionary competition, just as we can alter the environment for well or ill.

In fact, what Dennett and others describe as the evolutionary “arms race” has produced avoiders whose behavior can impose constraints on blind selfishness. It has long been noted that cooperation is often prudent as a way of helping ensure that one’s genes will be passed on. But morality, or being good, is more than prudence, or being practical. How might we rise to the level of morality?

Dennett rejects Immanuel Kant’s moral saint—one who acts from pure reason alone, without taking any satisfaction in doing the right thing—as the standard for us all. Instead, like philosophers from the Scottish moralists and David Hume to the American pragmatists, he calls upon the moral sentiments—the emotions—as dispositions that establish moral commitments. Kant’s disinterested moralist can speak only from his own position, but the countless evolutionary accidents that led to our design enabled us to be sufficiently engaged to establish moral standards, with the critical assistance of moral emotions like the guilt, shame, rage, sorrow, or pity that move most of us, more or less, to commit ourselves to moral action. Here Dennett is in one mainstream of philosophers and neuroscientists, from Aristotle to William James and Antonio Damasio, who have identified the emotions as having an indispensable role in achieving certain kinds of knowledge, rather than, as Platonists and Kantians would have it, undercutting our use of reason to guide intelligent action.

What is more, people like cooperators. Those who have learned how to be good avoiders of the “inevitable” Darwinian competition for survival tend to do better in life. People perceive those who are cooperators and prefer to deal with them than with those who are not.  In turn, the clusters of traits, or memes (units of thought that are passed from generation to generation, some evolutionists have suggested, in a manner analogous to genes), associated with altruistic behavior are passed on to descendants through the attractiveness of these individuals to potential mates. Although Dennett does not quite put it this way, it would seem that the presence of these “moral memes” must therefore increase in subsequent generations. If so, the freedom that ironically

has been produced by blind evolution may also foster something like moral progress. Although in the short span of recorded human history the evidence for such progress is mixed (to say the least), that may be because our historical memory extends back only a few thousand years, not even an eye blink in evolutionary terms. Perhaps the measurement of moral progress must be against a much longer time frame. Let us hope that our history continues long enough to make our moral progress evident.


Dennett’s understanding of the nature and origins of human freedom lead him to some noteworthy ethical positions on concerns such as personal autonomy and the appropriate limits of manipulative interventions that may range from education to self-deception to magic pills. Whereas brainwashing involves deliberately misleading people, Dennett maintains, as long as a person is “rational, self-controlled, and not wildly misinformed,” he is autonomous. Therefore, Dennett would tolerate many pharmacologic practices that arouse concern these days (and that are sure to proliferate), such as the use of stimulants in children who are deemed hyperactive. Critics might argue that Dennett sets too low a threshold for autonomy (not being “wildly” misinformed is nonetheless being misinformed), but what, after all, constitutes being sufficiently informed in a given case?

The same logic might apply to worries about genetic determinism that could be fostered by, say, the selective implantation of embryos following DNA analysis. At first, the problem may appear to be one of programming certain inevitable traits into future humans, but when we engage in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis we are in fact exercising our evolved avoider capacities: choosing this characteristic instead of that one. Our fear, Dennett observes, is not of determinism, but of freedom.

Dennett’s views about what is known in the law as prior restraint (and often frowned upon as contrary to basic human rights) are even further outside the mainstream, if not frankly controversial. Prior restraint refers to imposing sanctions (such as arrest and confinement) on a person we think might perform a certain illegal action in the future. In effect, we are punishing the alleged perpetrator of a future crime. Dennett notes, however, that neuroscience is likely to keep getting better at distinguishing between people who do and do not have the ability to suppress their impulses. Eventually those whom various technologies tell us will very likely or even inevitably molest children may be subject to controls before they can act: that is, to prior restraint. If their behavior is truly determined—if they cannot be proper avoiders—then society will intervene as an avoider on their behalf. Dennett does not actually propose policies of prior restraint, but as one who takes science seriously in the construction of public policy, he is driven to contemplate them seriously, and so should we. Dennett also suggests that as neuroscience teaches us more about the meaning of “could have done otherwise,” people who actually commit crimes will fall into different categories and may well be treated differently. Pedophiles who “could have done otherwise” will be punished, while those who “could not have done otherwise” may be treated.

In the end, as in the beginning, Dennett identifies himself as a naturalist. Although he does not elaborate on the term, naturalism holds that human experience is within nature, not apart from it. Science tells us what nature, and therefore we, are like, and it behooves philosophers to pay careful attention. The stakes involved in getting this right are high, particularly for the future of the idea of freedom. For example, those who dismiss science as antagonistic to freedom unwittingly jeopardize that very freedom, because science can show us how freedom has evolved and continues to evolve. Dennett’s argument that we have evolved toward more freedom, as avoiders of deterministic forces, is compelling if not conclusive. Even if we decide his specific theory is wrong, we seem to have confirmed his larger point about our ability to choose our own course. Avoiders!  


From Freedom Evolves, by Daniel C. Dennett. © 2003 by Daniel Dennett. Reprinted with permission of Viking Press. 

Four and half billion years ago, the planet Earth was formed, and it was utterly without life. And so it stayed for perhaps half a billion years, until the first simple life-forms emerged, and then for the next three billion years or so, the planet’s oceans teemed with life, but it was all blind and deaf. Simple cells multiplied, engulfing each other, exploiting each other in a thousand ways, but oblivious to the world beyond their membranes. Then finally much larger, more complex cells evolved—eukaryotes —still clueless and robotic, but with enough internal machinery to begin to specialize. So it continues for a few hundred million more years, the time it took for the algorithms of evolution to stumble upon good ways for these cells and their daughters and granddaughters to band together into multicellular organisms composed of millions, billions, and (eventually) trillions of cells, each doing its particular mechanical routine, but now yoked into specialized service, as part of an eye or an ear or a lung or a kidney. These organisms (not the individual team members composing them) had become long-distance knowers, able to spy supper trying to appear inconspicuous in the middle distance, able to hear danger threatening from afar. But still, even these whole organisms knew not what they were. Their instincts guaranteed that they tried to mate with the right sorts, and flock with the right sorts, but... no bison has ever known it’s a bison.

In just one species, our species, a new trick evolved: language. It has provided us a broad highway of knowledge-sharing, on every topic. Conversation unites us, in spite of our different languages. We can all know quite a lot about what it is like to be a Vietnamese fisherman or a Bulgarian taxi driver, an eighty-year-old nun or a five-year-old boy blind from birth, a chess master or a prostitute. No matter how different from one another we people are, scattered around the globe, we can explore our differences and communicate about them. No matter how similar to one another bison are, standing shoulder to shoulder in a herd, they cannot know much of anything about their similarities, let alone their differences, because they can’t compare notes. They can have similar experiences, side by side, but they really can’t share experiences the way we do.

Even in our species, it has taken thousands of years of communication for us to begin to find the keys to our own identities. It had been only a few hundred years that we’ve known that we are mammals, and only a few decades that we’ve understood in considerable detail how we have evolved, along with all other living things, from those simple beginnings. We are outnumbered on this planet by our distant cousins, the ants, and outweighed by yet more distant relatives, the bacteria. Though we are in the minority, our capacity for long-distance knowledge gives us powers that dwarf the powers of all the rest of the life on the planet. Now, for the first time in its billions of years of history, our planet is protected by far-seeing sentinels, able to anticipate danger from the distant future—a comet on a collision course, or global warming—and devise schemes for doing something about it. The planet has finally grown its own nervous system: us.

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Joseph T. Coyle, M.D., Harvard Medical School
Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Pierre J. Magistretti, M.D., Ph.D., University of Lausanne Medical School and Hospital
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Bruce S. McEwen, Ph.D., The Rockefeller University
Donald Price, M.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Charles Zorumski, M.D., Washington University School of Medicine

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